When NewSpring Church began, I realized that I have between 35-40 minutes (okay, maybe 55 or even 60) to speak to the people who attend one of our services every week and to say something that is given to me by God that will impact their lives. I also realized that part of my job as a communicator was to make the message as engaging and memorable as possible. So I have a seven-step philosophy on message preparation that I feel has served our church and our staff well.
1. Get a word from the Word.
I have an intense conviction when it comes to preaching: A preacher has got to speak from the overflow of what God is doing inside him. This means we must have consistent time with God when we are on our faces seeking Him for what he wants to say to us, because it is out of our victories and our pain that we communicate the most passionately—and therefore connect intimately—with the people that God has called us to lead.
The overwhelming majority of the series ideas that I have preached at NewSpring Church come out of my personal time with God. Now, let me be very clear: I do not use my quiet time for message preparation. The purpose of my personal time with God is for me to connect with Him, not to prepare a message. However, I always have a pen and a paper nearby, so I can jot down a note and come back to it later.
The best thing we can do as communicators is communicate what God is setting our hearts on fire with—then we don’t have to produce the passion. God produces the passion inside us.
2. Listen to other communicators.
From time to time, people will ask me, “Hey, Perry, do you ever use other people’s stuff?” I answer, “YES!”
However, give me a second to unpack this…first of all, I will not preach another person’s message word-for-word. However, if I’m listening to a communicator, and they say something to their church that resonates in my heart and my spirit, then I will not hesitate to use that same phrase, that same quote to the people I am preaching to.
I believe it is arrogant for a pastor or a church leader to hear something meaningful or impactful said by another church leader but still come to the conclusion, “I can’t say that to my church, because it is not an original thought birthed inside of me.” One of the greatest mistakes that a leader can make in speaking to his church is to actually think that he has to be original in everything that he preaches and teaches. God has given us the gift of other leaders and communicators who say some incredible things, and we should listen and be unafraid to share what God uses in their voices to impact our hearts and our congregations.
And by the way ... the person who claims to be completely original in their communication and vision has a problem with lying!
3. Find your best time and place to prepare.
All communicators are completely unique in their preparation process. We have to find what works for us. When I attended college many moons ago, it became evident to me that I did very well in early morning classes; however, after 12:00 p.m. my ADD and my desire to take naps often got the best of me! I am most likely to be “on my game” when it comes to preparation between 7:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.; after that, I am useless most of the time!
Thus, these days my preparation takes place in the morning, and I guard that time like a pit bull. I do not allow meetings to take place in the mornings. I very seldom do breakfasts for anyone, because the morning-time is when I am the freshest and able to think most clearly in regard to what God wants me to say.
I mentioned time—let me also mention place. When we study, we’ve got to separate ourselves from distraction. Give your cell phone to your assistant, put it on silent, and do not Twitter. From time to time, we need to get in a different environment—go to a coffee shop, sit at a picnic table in a park, do whatever it takes to find our best time and place to prepare. Do not schedule meetings during this time, and do not apologize. You’ve got a job to communicate to the people God has placed in front of you, and we’ve got to find our best time and place to prepare.
4. Organize a creative process.
I used to do “week-of” sermon preparation and planning, and it was one of the most stressful things that I’ve ever done in my life. One of the harshest realities that a pastor faces on Sunday night is that the next Sunday comes really fast. So I’ve organized a creative process that helps me in my planning. It has two parts:
a) Content. Our creative process always begins with scripture. We do not begin with, “There’s a cool song we’d love to do, so let’s organize a sermon around that.” We do not say, “I have a really cool illustration, so let’s find a Bible verse that fits with the illustration and revolve a sermon around it.” Correct theology must drive our methodology, and what we communicate must always begin with scripture.
I also bring others into a meeting to discuss the scripture passage, because there are people at different stages of life that will see scripture through a different lens. You would be amazed at some of the conversations that take place in some of our meetings. For example, I will bring in women who point out, “You know what, Perry? That’s the fourth sports illustration you’ve used this week. It’s not really connecting with us.” Or I’ll bring in singles and ask how they believe this passage applies to where they are in life. In fact, sometimes I will bring in people who may differ on some minor theological issues, because I want an all-around view of scripture.
Here’s the problem: Leaders, this takes work. It takes organization. It takes effort. But if you want to teach the scriptures in a way that connects with everybody, teach it in a smaller group and ask their opinions on it first. (That is, if you have the ego for it…)
b) Creativity. Once we get the message ready, then we try to organize the branding of the series and the days around it. Once again, I get different people in this mix. We brainstorm and we think BIG! What needs to be done musically? What needs to be done video-wise? I have a rule: No negative people in this meeting. We don’t need anybody to play the devil’s advocate—he doesn’t need an advocate, and I don’t want anyone on his team around my table. When you brainstorm, you’ve got to have people in the room with a willingness to check their ego at the door. Many times it takes about nine really bad ideas to produce one really great idea. People have to be willing to speak their mind and say what they’re thinking.
5. Work ahead.
I realize that many pastors are preaching what I call “Saturday Night Specials,” because they don’t feel they have the time or they don’t feel they can work ahead. I would challenge pastors to do everything they can to prepare their message two or three weeks ahead of time. The reason why is simple: It relieves your team and helps them to prepare better, too. Seriously, you have people who serve in your church—video people, music people, whatever—who, if you simply gave them two or three more weeks to pray through and develop some ideas, would AMAZE you with quality of work they could produce.
Pastors sometimes start to think their staff exists to serve them; therefore they work “week-of,” develop their message by Wednesday, give it to the people who have to help pull it together, completely stress out their music and video crew, and make them work 60, 70, 80 hours a week just to get the job done. If the pastor would repent of his laziness and egomania, the entire staff could serve the Body rather than just the pastor.
When we work ahead, it allows things to marinate in our minds. When we know what we are preaching two or three weeks in advance, it will literally help us become more aware of what we are preaching—so we are always thinking about it, always praying about it. We might even see something online that will refer to it. Marinating on an idea helps it develop. I try my best to work way ahead, so that our staff—specifically our creative arts department—can do their best job possible.
6. Pay attention to culture
This should go without saying, but what people are talking about should be important to us. One of the greatest problems I believe the church has—we are answering the questions that no one is asking.
Whatever culture is saying, Scripture has already addressed. We don’t have to try to be relevant; in fact, I believe the quickest way to irrelevance is to pursue relevance WITHOUT the scriptures! People are not always going to identify with our common ground, so its up to us to say, “Here’s what you are dealing with, and here’s what the scriptures say,” and show them how real God is through the teaching of His Word.
7. Inward promotion works best.
This is a conviction I have in regard to promoting a series. The best thing that we can do in order to reach more people with the Gospel is inform our church where the services will be heading (which takes planning ahead), promote it inwardly, and get the people in our church excited about what is coming next.
Please don’t misunderstand—I am not preaching against doing mailouts or billboards or newspaper ads. We’ve actually done all of these. However, nothing is more impactful than a church full of fired-up people who are so excited out of their minds about what the church is getting ready to address, they will actually dive out of their comfort zones and take a risk to bring someone else to church with them. When someone is excited about what is to come, it’s the best way you can promote what is coming!
By the way, people will sometimes tell me, “Perry, I think you overhype your church.” This always makes me laugh, because…
a) If I say I’m excited…then I am EXCITED! If I say it is going to be the best Sunday ever, it is because I believe it! I can’t help but be absolutely FIRED UP about what I get to do! In fact, I think there is a problem when you CAN’T get excited about the upcoming Sunday…which leads to…
b) If the pastor can’t be excited about Sunday, then how can he expect anyone else to be? If you are a church leader and/or pastor and can’t get excited about Sundays, maybe you are in the wrong church…or even the wrong line of work!
God didn’t call us to be passive but to be filled with HIS passion to CHANGE the world with HIS Gospel! So NEVER apologize for passionately communicating about your belief that “Sunday is going to be awesome!”
One more thing: whatever you do, do not over-promise and under-deliver. When you say it—mean it!